Discover more from All Rise with Sally Helgesen
The Self Promotion Trap
When Our Strengths Undermine Us
Attention is a form of currency. So it’s no surprise that compelling attention is key to advancing our careers. I’ve written previously about the importance of claiming our contributions at work, especially if we feel angst at the mere thought of self-promotion.
But what about those who are comfortable claiming their achievements? After all, many of us, including a fair share of women, enjoy the limelight and are good at using it to our advantage.
Are these people just lucky? To some extent, they may be. Yet the truth is a little more complicated than sheer good fortune. For there are times when having a knack for making ourselves visible can actually undermine us.
That’s because being at ease in the spotlight does not preclude us from feeling triggered by the issue of visibility. Colleagues who do not share our gift for self promotion may grate on our nerves. We may decide they are snobs who consider the games that we take seriously– and work hard to be good at– as somehow beneath them. As a result, we may dismiss them as drudges, workhorses lacking in flair.
Judgments like these can inspire us to take a Darwinian approach. As one executive I worked with declared, “It’s sink or swim around here. If you can’t speak up for yourself, if you can’t figure out how to get yourself noticed, it’s not my job to make sure that happens.”
As this comment makes obvious, taking satisfaction in our own talent for garnering visibility can make it hard for us to empathize with those who struggle to do so. We fail to recognize the value that introverted personalities contribute to the team. We ignore the fact that those from outside the dominant group may have a history of getting shut down when they try to be assertive. Or, taking pride in our own star status, we may dismiss the skills others bring to the table as “less than.”
This can erode our commitment to putting in the hard work our jobs require. As a result, we may be tempted to blow things off, figuring that others can take care of the details. Despite our talents, our colleagues may view us as self-serving.
Being triggered by those who struggle to be visible can also cause us to undervalue expertise, a common pitfall among high flyers. And a frequent contributor to their eventual flame-outs.
For the fact is that whenever we tell ourselves a story about why our approach is superior, we invest in a self-serving narrative that can undermine our colleagues while also limiting our own growth. Mentally tearing someone down in our heads may cause us to bond with others who share our scorn, indulging in the kind of unproductive gossip that fosters a toxic work environment.
It’s important to realize that telling ourselves self-vindicating tales doesn't make us terrible people. It simply shows that we’re human, prone to commending our own beliefs and talents in an effort to justify our approach. That’s fine, but it’s also a cue that we may need to pull back and tweak our internal dialogue.
So whenever we hear ourselves saying— or even thinking— “I would never ...” or “How could they possibly…?” or “I’m not the sort of person who...”, we can benefit by pausing to recognize that we’re being set off. Instead of buying into our usual story and going with our default reactions, we’d be better off diffusing our tendency to judgment. Particularly when it doesn’t serve us.